Skip to comments.On St. Leo the Great
Posted on 03/05/2008 7:35:16 PM PST by ELS
On St. Leo the Great
VATICAN CITY, March 5, 2008 The General Audience today took place once again in two places. First, the Pope greeted the faithful inside St. Peter's Basilica, including Italian students belonging to two national associations. Afterwards, he proceeded to Paul VI Hall where he delivered his Wednesday catechesis and greetings to various pilgrim groups.
Here is a translation of the catechesis:
Dear brothers and sisters,
Continuing our journey with the Fathers of the Church, true stars who shine from afar, today we come to a Pope who was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Benedict XIV in 1754: St. Leo the Great. As indicated by the appellation which was quickly granted him by tradition, he was truly one of the greatest Pontiffs who ever honored the Roman See, contibuting a great deal to reinforce its authority and prestige. The first Bishop of Rome to carry the name Leo, which was later taken by 12 other Supreme Pontiffs, he is also the first Pope whose preaching to the people who gathered around him during liturgical celebrations has come down to us. One thinks spontaneously of him in the context of the present Wednesday general audiences, an appointment which has become for the Bishop of Rome, in the past few decades, a customary form of encounter with the faithful and so many visitors coming from every part of the world.
Leo was a native of Tuscia [an historic Italian region that was under the Etruscans - now corresponds to the province of Viterbo, but included Tuscany and parts of Lazio]. He became a deacon in the Church of Rome around 430, and with time, achieved a high profile in that function. His outstanding performance led Galla Palcidia, who ruled the Wetsern Empire at the time, to send him to Gaul in 440 to repair a difficult situation. But in the summer of that year, Pope Sixtus III - whose name is linked to the magnificent mosaics at Santa Maria Maggiore - died, and Leo was elected to succeed him, receiving the news while he was on his mission in Gaul. Returning to Rome, the new Pope was consecrated on September 29, 440. Thus started a Pontificate which lasted more than 21 years and which is undoubtedly one of the most important in the history of the Church. Upon his death on November 10, 461, the Pope was buried near the tomb of St. Peter. His relics are kept today in one of the altars of the Vatican Basilica.
Pope Leo lived in very difficult times: repeated barbarian invasions, the progressive weakening of imperial authority in the Western empire, and a long social crisis had imposed on the Bishop of Rome - as it would with even greater effect one and a half centuries later during the pontificate of St. Gregory the Great - the need to assume a role that was relevant even in civil and political affairs. Obviously, this did not fail to increaase the importance and prestige of the Roman See. A famous episode in Leo's life took place in 452, when the Pope, together with a Roman delegation, met with Attila, leader of the Huns, in Mantua, and persuaded him from continuing with his war of invasion which had already devastated northeastern Italy, thus saving the rest of the peninsula. This important event quickly became memorable and continues to be an emblematic sign of the peace activities carried out by the Papacy. Unfortunately, a similar success was not the outcome of another papal initiative three years later, which is nevertheless the sign of a courage which still amazes us. In the spring of 455, Leo could not, in fact, prevent the Vandals of Genseric, who had reached the gates of Rome, from invading the defenseless city which was sacked for two weeks. Nevertheless, the Pope's gesture - helpless and surrounded by his priests, he went forth to meet the invader and asked him to stop - at least prevented the burning of Rome and resulted in saving the Basilica's of St. Peter, St. Paul and St. John Lateran, in which part of the terrorized population had sought refuge.
We know Pope Leo's activities quite well, thanks to his beautiful sermons, of which almost a hundred have been preserved, in splendid and clear Latin and thanks to his letters, of which there are almost 150. In these texts, the Pope appears in all his greatness, in the service of truth in charity, through an assiduous exercise of the word which showed him to be both theologian and pastor at the same time. St. Leo the Great, whose attention was constantly solicited by the faithful and the people of Rome, but also by the communion among the different churches and their needs, was a tireless promoter and supporter of the Roman primacy, presenting the Pope as the authentic heir of the Apostle Peter. The bishops, many of them Oriental, who gathered together in the Council of Chalcedon, showed themselves to be well aware of this.
Held in 451, with 350 bishops taking part, this Council was the most important assembly ever celebrated in the history of the Church till then. Chalcedon represented the secure harbor of the Christology established in the three preceding ecumenical councils: Nicaea in 325, Constantinople in 381, and Ephesus in 431. Already in the sixth century, these four Councils, which synthesized the faith of the early Church, came to be likened to the four Gospels: as St. Gregory the Great stated in a famous letter (I,24), affirming "to accept and venerate, like the four books of the Holy Gospel, the four Councils" because, he explains further, on them "the structure of the holy faith arises as on a keystone." The Council of Chalcedon, in denouncing the heresy of Eutiche, who denied the true human nature of the Son of God - affirmed the union, within the one Person of Christ, of the human and divine natures, without confusion and without separation.
This faith in Jesus Christ as true God and true man was affirmed by Pope Leo in an important doctrinal text addressed to tbe Bishop of Constantinople, the so-called 'Tome to Flavianus', which, when read at Chalcedon, was received by the bishops present with eloquent acclamation - recorded in the acts of the Council in these words: "Peter has spoken through the mouth of Leo" - breaking into unanimous applause. From this intervention above all, but also in others carried out during the Christological controversy of those years, it is evident that the Pope felt the particularly urgent responsibility of the Successor of Peter, whose role is unique in the Church, because "only to one Apostle was entrusted what was communicated to all the apostles", as Leo said in one of his sermons for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul (83,2). And the Pope knew how to exercise this responsibility in the West as well as in the East, intervening in different circumstances with prudence, firmness and clarity through his writings and through his legates. He showed in this way how the exercise of Roman primacy was necessary then, as it is today, in order to effectively serve the communion that is charatceristic of the only Church of Christ.
Conscious of the historical moment in which he lived and the transition that it was undergoing - in a period of profound crisis - from pagan Rome to Christian Rome, St. Leo the Great knew how to be close to the people and the faithful with his pastoral activity and his preaching. He inspired charity in a Rome that was tried by famine, a refugee influx, injustices and poverty. He opposed pagan superstitions and the activities of Manichaean groups. He linked liturgy to the daily life of Christians by uniting, for example, the practice of fasting to charity and almsgiving, especially during the Four 'tempora' which marked the seasonal changes during the year. In particular, St. Leo the Great taught the faithful - and even today, his words are valid for us - that Christian liturgy is not a remembrance of past events but the actualization of invisiblle realities that work in the life of every person. He underscored this in a sermon (64,1-2) on Easter, which, he said, must be celebrated every day of the year "not as something from the past, but rather as an event of the present". All this was part of a precise plan, the Holy Pontiff pointed out: Just as the Creator animated with his breath of rational life the man he had fashioned out of the mud of the earth, so too, after original sin, he sent his Son to the world to restore lost dignity to man and to destroy the power of the devil through a new life in grace.
This is the Christologic mystery to which St. Leo the Great, with his letter to the Council of Ephesus, gave an effective and essential contribution, confirming for all times, through the Council, what St. Peter said at Caesarea. With Peter and like Peter, he professed: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" - thus, God and man together, "not alien to the human species, but alien to sin" (cfr Serm. 64). With the strength of this Christologic faith, Leo the Great was a great bearer of peace and love. He thus shows us the way: in faith, we learn charity. Let us learn with St. Leo the Great to believe in Christ, true God and true man, and to realize this faith everyday in actions for peace and in love for our neighbor.
[After his address, the Holy Father greeted the pilgrims in various languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Continuing our catechesis on the Fathers of the Church, we turn to Saint Leo the Great, one of the most influential Popes in history. He was born in Tuscia and became Bishop of Rome in 440 during times of severe social unrest. Since the Roman Emperor’s authority had practically disappeared in the West, and Italy was suffering from frequent Barbarian incursions, Pope Leo took it upon himself to protect Rome. His courageous meeting in Mantua with Attila the Hun, whom he convinced to desist from his plans to devastate the city, is the most well known, but not the only event of its kind. Pope Leo promoted the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome as the successor of the Apostle Peter, and exercised this ministry in the East and the West with great prudence, pastoral sensitivity and wisdom. The Bishops attending the important Council of Chalcedon in 451, acclaimed the text he sent concerning faith in Jesus, true God and true man, with the words: “Peter has spoken through the mouth of Leo”. Thanks to Pope Leo’s sermons and letters, we can still appreciate his zeal and charity as pastor of the Church, and his theological depth and clarity. He also shares with us his profound understanding of the liturgy, where he sees the mysteries of salvation as present to our time and influential in our everyday realities. May the life and example of Pope Saint Leo always remind us that the encounter with God in Christ is the source of our joy and our salvation!
* * *
I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims attending today’s audience, including the groups from England, Denmark, Sweden, Indonesia, Canada and the United States. I extend particular greetings to the visitors from Christendom College, and to the many student groups present. May this Lenten season purify your hearts and renew your faith and your hope in the mystery of Christ our Redeemer. God bless you all!
© Copyright 2008 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana
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